March 28, 2014

How Hip Hop Prefigured "The New Jim Crow"

[Welcome to the first article in a while FotM has posted by old friend Mark Naison, activist, organizer, educator, scholar, novelist, Bad Ass Teacher and, on occasion, MC (as The Notorious PhD). This essay draws on various of his skills to make an argument so clear that it may strike folks who never thought about it as obvious. The incisive work of Michelle Alexander in her 2010 The New Jim Crow has been transformative in its effects, but many whose view of the world it so bluntly readjusted might not have found it so surprising had they been listening carefully to many of the hip hop cuts of two decades ago.      Jimmy Higgins]


Hip Hop Commentary on the Prison System:
An Unrecognized Antecedent to The New Jim Crow

by Mark Naison



"You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the block"

Dead Prez  “Behind Enemy Lines”

When Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow several years ago, many people were shocked to discover the devastating impact that the drug war and mass incarceration had on Black communities throughout the nation.  The narrative her book contained was not one which had wide dissemination in commercial media, and was certainly never presented with the power, authority and mixture of statistical evidence and storytelling that The New Jim Crow displayed

However, there was one place where the story Michelle Alexander presented was highlighted with equal eloquence, and at times, even greater vividness and that was Hip Hop. From the late 1980’s through the beginning of the 20th Century, as the crack epidemic and the drug war it triggered led the number of incarcerated people to exceed 2 million and the number of people it indirectly affected by it to reach at least 10 times that number, a number of the most talented hip hop artists in the country, some commercially successful, some not, told heartbreaking stories in their music about what the prison system and the drug war were doing to individuals and whole communities.

Hip Hop artists, on the ground in the most affected communities, coming from the generation of young people who gravitated to the drug business as the legal economy in their communities produced only low-paying service jobs, began spinning out prison narratives in great profusion, some of them filled with political commentary, some of them offering personal stories in grim detail.


In the first category is Brand Nubian’s “Claimin’ I’m a Criminal” which sees the police apparatus developed during the drug war as something used to crush dissent in the Black community and  views prison as a place filled with rebels against mass impoverishment
I know the game so I just roll with the procedure
Illegal search and seizure, somethin that they're doin at their leisure
Down at the station, 
interrogation is takin place
Overcrowded jails but for me they're makin space
Tell the devil to his face he can suck my dick
It's the whole Black race that they're fuckin with
But even amidst their rage at the incarceration of a generation of Black youth, Brand Nubian offers this heartrending portrait of what jail feels like to any inmate, activist or not- when you are alone with desperate angry men, separated from your crew, your children, your wife or girlfriend, fearful for your life, afraid you are going to losing everything you had on the outside.
I was frustrated, I can't do no more push-ups
Niggas be swole up, locked down cos of a hold-up
"The devil made me do it" is what I say
Got some bad news on my one phone call the other day
"I love the kids and I teach em to love their father
I'll get you some kicks and try to send some flicks
But it's over, baby, yes it's over"
Ain't much you can do when you're holdin a phone
A million inmates but ya still alone
You're not cryin but inside ya dyin
You might cry in the night when ya safe and outta sight
Damn I miss my peeps and the rides in the jeeps
And my casual freedom, where's my crew when I need em?
An even more detailed look at prison life, without the explicit political commentary , is presented what most think is the greatest hip hop prison narrative ever written, Nas’s “One Love.’ which appeared on his landmark album “Illmatic,”  which appeared when he was only 19 years old. Nas (Nasir Jones) who grew up in the Queensbridge Houses in New York creates a narrative in which prison, along with early death, has become the fate of an entire generation of Black youth living in the inner city in the late 1980’s to mid 90’s. The conversational intimacy of Nas's account, which juxtaposes portraits of prison life to those of street life, is the stuff of great literature, presenting an alternate reality which middle class Americans, Black as well as white, had little direct exposure to:
What's up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid
When the cops came you should've slid to my crib
Fuck it, Black, no time for looking back, it's done
Plus congratulations you know you got a son
I heard he looks like you, why don't your lady write you?
Told her she should visit, that's when she got hyper
Flippin, talk about he acts too rough
He didn't listen he be riffin' while I'm telling him stuff
I was like yeah, shorty don't care, she a snake too
Fucking with the niggas from that fake crew that hate you
But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece?
Jerome's niece, on her way home from Jones Beach - it's bugged
Plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hangin out with young thugs that all carry 9's
Nas’s intimacy with the dangers on the inside, of rapes and beatings and deadly beefs, whether on Rikers Island or in upstate prisons (Elmira) gives the song a chilling quality. Here is a 19 year old artist who lives in a world where death and humiliation lurk around every corner:
But I heard you blew a nigga with a ox for the phone piece
Wildin on the Island, but now in Elmira
Better chill cause them niggas will put that ass on fire
Last time you wrote you said they tried you in the showers
But maintainwhen you come home the corner's ours
In the final verse, Nas acknowledges that nothing he has ever learned in school, or read, prepared him for the realities he and his friends face, and  proclaims writing them down in verse as his personal mission:
Sometimes I sit back with a Buddha sack
Mind's in another world thinking how can we exist through the facts
Written in school text books, bibles, et cetera
Fuck a school lecture, the lies get me vexed-er
So I be ghost from my projects
I take my pen and pad for the weekend
Nas was Michelle Alexander before The New Jim Crow, warning anyone who would listen of the tragedy befalling his generation. But it was 1994, and no one much outside of the hip hop audience  listened.

The combination of intimate details of prison life and acute consciousness of tragedy, which Nas's song highlights, appears in a great many Hip Hop prison narratives which followed “One Love” including those which were circulated only locally in various cities. Rawcotics, a Dominican Hip Hop group from Washington Heights, displays these features in a song widely circulated in NY called “Going All Out.” First the duo describes the virtual inevitability of incarceration among young men in their neighborhood:
Whats all my niggas is getting rich by breaking the law
Going through banded walls
Soothing the pain up with alcohol
Living the criminal tradition of organized crime and cooking mines
Playing with nickles and dimes
And then millions civilians is still snitching
Dangerous for legal living that is caused by the ammunition
Uncle Sam is mad win again
Every time we get locked up we feel somebody's throwing the coffins

That done, they move on to a fear filled narrative of what awaits them in prison:
Ayo my drug infected sections got me infected what a selection direction
Department of corrections. Check though I left my castle unprotected
On a bus with these addicts stressing my necklace bullpens full of hooligans bull
Many vipers and mad syphers for the phone you get blown to the bone
. . . .
Me that body be in the infirmary emergency look at the shit that I got
Into for the American Currency Guliani got new laws got me looking at
Great walls bangs are being made in the mess hall
There is no pretense that this is anything but normal reality for young men in Washington Heights, as it was for those in the Queensbridge Houses. Did anyone outside this world notice, or care? Not much--at least in the 1990’s.
At the end of the decade, some politically conscious hip hop artists began to directly address the indifference towards the mass incarceration of young men in inner city communities on the part of the vast majority of the American population. Some artists came together on an album called No More Prisons and one of the most powerful contributions was a song by Chubb Rock, and Lil Dap, Ed O.G. and Paw Duke  “Rich Get Rich” with a chorus that presents a chilling view of life in the “hood”:
Because life ain't shit, you got to work for yours
Got to hustle from the bottom just to feed the poor
Niggas think shit is funny, got to work for yours
See the rich get, rich, the poor get poor
But the most powerful lyric is Chubb Rock’s enumeration of major New York and New Jersey prisons along with matter of fact references to the things that happen to people in them, along with a cry of rage at the rich who profit from crime and somehow never end up behind bars;
The JFK niggas died in cellblock 9
From the crack lackeys, hold your asshole in Coxsackie
Green Haven nigs in pens sweatin like pigs
Niggas get clockwork for five to ten blockwork
Then cry for balance, then toss the salads
Of the long wrong life, beaten knife, wound cabbage
Greenvale niggas at night, for bail adage
.....
The Guilianis, Armanis, who launder
The ducats from the Mexicans sweatin niggz from Rahway
How the fuck can street crack rule the NASDAQ?
That's like a rap nigga getting a check from ASCAP --
Can't happen, after Attica rule the Richter
The poor went raw and the rich got richer
The song, which in some way prefigures Michelle Alexander’s entire argument, ends with a passionate shout out by Chubb Rock to people he knows behind bars:
D-Rock, peace peace and one time peace
Freeze Love, peace peace and peace peace
Cocksachie, Greenvale, Greenwald
Attica, one more time, hold on
Rahway, come back cell block H
And everybody in Riker's, one love
One love..
At around the same time, Dead Prez came out with a song called “Behind Enemy Lines” that may be the most powerful direct indictment of mass incarceration and its impact on the Black community ever recorded  As you review the lyrics I quote, please remember that this song appeared at least ten years before the appearance of  The New Jim Crow:

The song begins with an invented dialogue between  a guard and prisoners that goes as follows:
Let's go fellas, shower time's in five minutes

Get those feet off the table, whaddyou think this is, home?


(This is bullshit - yo son let me get a cigarette)
(I'ma go.. back to my cell and read)

That's it - five more minutes and that's it
Back to work fellas, back to work!
The song then moves on to a narrative of someone who Dead Prez describes as a political prisoner, Fred Hampton Jr,, setting the stage for their analysis of mass incarceration as a form of political repression:
Yo, lil' Kadeija pops his locks, he wanna pop the lock
But prison ain't nuttin but a private stock
And she be dreamin bout his date of release, she hate the police
But loved by her grandma who hugs and kisses her
Her father's a political prisoner, Free Fred
 
Son of a Panther that the government shot dead
Back in 12/4, 1969
Four o'clock in the mornin, it's terrible but it's fine, cause

Fred Hampton Jr. looks just like him
Walks just like him, talks just like him
And it might be frightenin the Feds and the snitches
To see him organize the gang brothers and sisters

So he had to be framed yo, you know how the game go
Eighteen years, because the five-oh said so
They said he set a fire to a a-rab store

But he ignited the minds of the young black and poor
Dead Prez then produces the first of two incredible choruses where they present their political analysis:
Behind enemy lines, my niggas is cellmates
Most of the youths never escape the jail fates
Super maximum camps will advance they gameplan
To keep us in the hands of the man, locked up
Their next verse presents a devastating portrait of a Black youth abandoned, growing up in a devastated neighborhood, who ends up with a gun in his hand and a life behind bars, viewing his story as a metaphor for several generations  of Black youth discarded, their potential squandered, their passion directed into a struggle for survival that leaves many casualties. Or, as Dead Prez puts it, “another ghetto child turned into a killer”:
Lord can't even smoke a loosey since he was twelve
Now he's 25 locked up with a L
hey call him triple K, cause he killed three niggas
Another ghetto child got turned into a killer
His pops was a Vietnam veteran on heroin
Used like a pawn by these white North Americans

Momma couldn't handle the stress and went crazy
Grandmomma had to raise the baby
Just a young boy, born to a life of poverty
Hustlin, robbery, whatever brung
The paper home
Carried the chrome like a blind man holdin cane
Tattoes all over his chest, so you can know his name
But y'all know how the game go
Ds kicked in the front door, and guess who
They came fo'?
A young nigga headed for the pen,
Coulda been
Shoulda been
Never see the hood again 
Their final chorus presents a simple concept: Prison has become a metaphor for Black life in inner city neighborhoods throughout the nation. Never has their been a more elegant description of what sociologist  Loiq Waquant has called “ The Prison/Hood Symbiosis,” than this chorus from Dead Prez:
You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine

They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
You ain't gotta be locked up to be in prison
Look how we livin, thirty thousand niggas a day
Up in the bing, standard routine
They put us in a box just like our life on the blocks
(behind enemy lines)
What I hope to have shown here is that almost every important component of Michelle Alexander’s argument was presented by hip hop artists from 10 to 20 years before her book appeared. And in forms that were deeply familiar to the hip hop audience, and touched powerful emotions. That this discourse was neglected, and at times mocked, in virtually every mainstream venue of mass communication does not negate its power and importance.  It only shows how easily our society renders whole sections of the population invisible.

Read more!

February 12, 2014

Comrade Valentine's Day Slogans--An Historical Compendium


February is the month in which we celebrate one of the great holidays of the international working class. And it is a fine thing indeed that the Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2014 have been released by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad.

As it has done for over a decade, Freedom Road has commendably undertaken to give scientific guidance to comrades celebrating this great day, taking into account the exact conjuncture of the class struggle at the present time. Because our movement is rooted firmly in the method and world outlook of dialectical and historical materialism, Fire on the Mountain has compiled in this post links to as much of the recent history of CVD as is available at present. (Inexplicably, the generally valuable Marxist Internet Archives and Encyclopedia of anti-Revisionism On-Line do not contain this crucial archival material.)

We are aware of the dangers that revisionists and "left" sectarians alike may rummage around in this compendium, seeking to nit-pick or posit, a-historically, contradictions between one year and another. but FotM has confidence in the experience of veteran comrades and the perspicacity of the rising generation of class warriors alike. May they draw inspiration from the past and carry the observation of Comrade Valentine's Day into the bright future!

First, this year's slogans, from the FRSO/OSCL website:

Toilers! Tillers! All who yearn and fight for a better world!

Let us surge forward together, wave on wave, illumined by the bright red rays of Comrade Valentine's revolutionary romanticism. 

Decisively demolish the saccharine commodity fetishism with which the bourgeoisie attempts to smother the proletarian character of Comrade Valentine's Day. 

 Joyously celebrate the deepening rejection of heteropatriarchal homophobia by the masses in their millions, a victory for Comrade Valentine's Communist line!
Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian
Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian
Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian
A new graphic illustrates the slogans.

The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2013 can be found on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translations were supplied in Spanish, Filipino, Mandarin, Irish, Malayalam, Bosnian/ Croatian/Serbian, Swedish, German and Norwegian. A new graphic appeared as well. Research indicates it was created by a professional artist, Magaly Ohika of Puerto Rico.

Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian
Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian

Toilers! Tillers! All who yearn and fight for a better world!
Let us surge forward together, wave on wave, illumined by the bright red rays of Comrade Valentine’s revolutionary romanticism.
Decisively demolish the saccharine commodity fetishism with which the bourgeoisie attempts to smother the proletarian character of Comrade Valentine’s Day!!
Joyously celebrate the deepening rejection of heteropatriarchal homophobia by the masses in their millions, a victory for Comrade Valentine’s Communist line!!!
- See more at: http://freedomroad.org/2014/02/official-slogans-for-comrade-valentines-day-2014/#sthash.Vs0z5xrF.dpuf
Toilers! Tillers! All who yearn and fight for a better world!
Let us surge forward together, wave on wave, illumined by the bright red rays of Comrade Valentine’s revolutionary romanticism.
Decisively demolish the saccharine commodity fetishism with which the bourgeoisie attempts to smother the proletarian character of Comrade Valentine’s Day!!
Joyously celebrate the deepening rejection of heteropatriarchal homophobia by the masses in their millions, a victory for Comrade Valentine’s Communist line!!!
- See more at: http://freedomroad.org/2014/02/official-slogans-for-comrade-valentines-day-2014/#sthash.Vs0z5xrF.dpuf

Toilers! Tillers! All who yearn and fight for a better world!
Let us surge forward together, wave on wave, illumined by the bright red rays of Comrade Valentine’s revolutionary romanticism.
Decisively demolish the saccharine commodity fetishism with which the bourgeoisie attempts to smother the proletarian character of Comrade Valentine’s Day!!
Joyously celebrate the deepening rejection of heteropatriarchal homophobia by the masses in their millions, a victory for Comrade Valentine’s Communist line!!!
- See more at: http://freedomroad.org/2014/02/official-slogans-for-comrade-valentines-day-2014/#sthash.Vs0z5xrF.dpuf
The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2012 can be found on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translations were supplied in Mandarin, Spanish, Irish, German, Italian, Indonesian, Swedish and Norwegian. 2012 marked the first time the Official Slogans were credited to the Freedom Road Line Development Commission, as they have been since. An experimental  CVD Slogans From Below feature was introduced but evidently did not catch on.

The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2011 can be found on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translations were supplied in English and Mandarin.
Freedom Road Line Development Commission


The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day, 2010 can be found on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translations were supplied in German, Spanish and Swedish.

The Comrade Valentine's Day slogans for 2009 appeared only here at Fire on the Mountain.
Translations were supplied in Swedish, German and Spanish (2 versions). This may be the first appearance of the CVD "rising heart" version of Freedom Road's official rising star logo.


The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day, 2008 appear on the FRSO/OSCL website.

The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day, 2007 appear on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translation was supplied in Spanish.

The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2006 appear on the FRSO/OSCL website.
Translation was supplied in Spanish. This appears to have been the first occasion upon which the Official Slogans appeared in a language other than English.

The Official Slogans for Comrade Valentine's Day 2005 are to be found in a comment on a thread in an FotM reposting of the 2011 Official Slogans. They were:
Workers and Oppressed People, Hold Aloft the Bright Red, Heart-Shaped Banner of Comrade Valentine's Day!

Hail the Trailblazing Revolutionary Gay Marriage of Ka Andres and Ka Jose of the Compostela Valley Province Front of the New People's Army of the Philippines!

Resolutely Repudiate All Attacks by the Reactionaries of the Monopolist Ruling Class and Their Joyless, Puritanical Running Dogs on Women's Reproductive Freedom, on the Democratic Rights of LGBTQ People, and on Progress toward Genuine Equality between Women and Men!

And before 2005? All that exists is the following section of  Fire on the Mountain's 2011 repost of  the Official Slogans for that year:
The 2004 Official Slogans, thought lost, have been retrieved by Comrade Google as they were preserved by the far-sighted Scott McLemee. Here they are:
Workers and Oppressed People, Unite to Make Comrade Valentine's Day a Joyous Holiday of Proletarian Class Love and Militant Struggle!

Decisively Defeat the Sinister Schemes of the Bush/Cheney Gangster Clique to Thwart the Romantic Aspirations of the L/G/B/T/Q masses!

Eternal Glory to Comrade Valentine!
Secondary sources--the legendary Leftist Trainspotters listserv--indicate that Comrade Valentine's Day Official Slogans were also released in 2002 and 2003. Further archival work will, it is to be hoped, make them accessible to future generations of proletarian fighters.

Read more!

January 31, 2014

Dave Marsh on Pete Seeger

[I think I'm gonna ditch the piece on Pete Seeger I've been writing. Dave Marsh doesn't make several of the points I was going to, but those he does, he does better than I could and he's got some that never occurred to me. This is reprinted with permission from RRC, Rock & Rap Confidential. The permission reads, in Pete's spirit:

Please feel free to forward or post this RRC Extra widely. We only ask that you include the information that anyone can subscribe free of charge to Rock & Rap Confidentialby sending their email address to rockrap@aol.com.

So do it.]









A GOLDEN THREAD, A NEEDLE….
by Dave Marsh


I met Pete Seeger about 40 years ago on the Clearwater, a refurbished 19th century sloop which had begun its then seemingly hopeless task of cleaning up the shores and waters of the Hudson River. Like a lot of the things that Pete got involved in, it was a hopeless task until it turned out to be common sense.

That day, we cruised Long Island Sound, if I remember right, from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay, which is not very far, and back, which is still not very far. It was worth every minute, and would have been if only for the chance to spend time aboard the 106 foot, single-masted Clearwater, a gorgeous vessel, stable even in Long Island Sound’s considerable chop and carrying as cargo volumes of lore and lessons about the costs of environmental neglect.

You could say that those early Clearwater voyages were the precursors of the present-day celebrity cruise, but with fewer celebrities. No more were needed. Pete Seeger was not only the enduring star of American folk music, he was its leading evangelist and one of the greatest singer/musicians this part of the planet has produced. I remember Pete singing though not what songs, and some lectures about the important work of the ship and the ecology of the Sound and the Hudson River region, though not their specific content. The presentation did its best to be as folkie as a much-darned pair of wool socks, and unmistakably also an event with a star and a crew and an audience, never exactly commingled. It was also a strong, healthy political event, by which I mean that each of us left with a sense of mission and some ideas about how to execute it.

I wasn’t there to clean up the Sound, though I was glad to be part of the movement, or to hear Pete perform, though I knew the importance of his music. I was there to write a story for Newsday, the Long Island daily. I did what you do in those situations, where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, which mostly means I watched and listened and took mostly the kind of sensory notes that you don’t write down on the spot.

When we docked everyone headed for the parking lot. Pete and his wife Toshi had several bags. I introduced myself, not only because we were meant to talk for a few minutes, but as a prelude to asking if I could help carry their stuff.

I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Dave Marsh from Newsday,” before Pete turned to me and snapped—and I mean snapped, like he was already booking me for malingering—“Grab a couple of those bags. It’s good for white collar workers to do physical labor.” Thus spoke the Harvard gentleman to the brakeman’s son who’d never owned a necktie. And no, I didn’t come up with my usual smartass retort. He was Pete Seeger, who had changed not only my life but the world, and the alternative to silence was insulting him as much as he’d just insulted me, and…well, for once it was not in me.

That incident was one of the best lessons I ever had several times over. I learned lessons I’d chew on for, apparently, the rest of my life: The relation between stardom and shyness, between changing the world and retaining your self, and between trusting your perceptions and remembering not to suppose anything until you’ve made sure the person about whom you’ve just supposed it is not a cartoon.

Read more!

January 26, 2014

Book Review: Stones from the Creek


Stones from the Creek, Rick Levine's new book, is a series of loosely-linked short stories about the United States during the period between the Spanish-American War and the onset of WWI. It is a splendid venture into relatively uncharted territory for radical fiction.

But permit me to digress for a moment. This is, if memory serves, the first book review in over 500 posts here at Fire on the Mountain, dating back to 2006. In general, it strikes me that there are two reasons to write a book review (at least, if someone isn't paying you to).
A. One has views and insights to offer its other readers, striving to engage in thoughtful discussion across time and space.
B. One wants to get people pumped up to go and read the damn book.

Let's be clear. This is an Option B review. Stones from the Creek is not only a fine and in many ways remarkable work, but it is self-published, and by a first-time author to boot. That means that unless fans beat the drums for it—hard—the sucker will have a hard time finding the audience it deserves.

Now, back to the book's considerable merits. The 14 loosely-linked short stories here present a unique panoramic view of the US as monopoly capital expands its grip and becomes modern imperialism. Yet the strength of the panorama is that only one story deals with on developments at the commanding heights and that one at twin removes, telling a tale of the Crash of 1907—as an Isaac Beshevis Singer-style Yiddish folktale.

For the most part, the reader becomes engaged with a set of ordinary people, many of them actual historical figures, who are just as extraordinary as the everyday people whom we meet in life, or in the struggle. More extraordinary, because they come from cultures and backgrounds far removed from our own. 

One of my current favorites is "The Giant Believed Her," whose center is the Apache chief Alchesay. It unfolds as the story of the attempt to revive traditional tribal culture in a guise which may just conceal it from the genocidal intentions of the dominant ndaa (white) power structure. The reader is drawn to understand the behavior, the manners, appropriate to an Apache man in this period, and to celebrate Alchesay's victory. Then further reading or simple reflection reveals a universal theme many of us are dealing with. How, in a period of setback, of defeat, do we decide what fights can be won, what tactics will serve, how the base can be mobilized?

Other figures who shine include a buffalo soldier who rescues Teddy Roosevelt's ass at San Juan Hill and is given a hard a way to go as a reward, the four-year-old Paiute girl whose life is changed when her grandmother slashes the throat of a BIA investigator, and the young wife heading the procession carrying the statue of San Miguel to its home in a New Mexico church, 

"The Sun Shone So Brightly" is perhaps the closest to a traditional work of "proletarian fiction," both in its subject matter, class unity forged in a miners' walkout, and in its optimism. But Levine is a materialist, and history is history. Two of the most unsettling stories feature Smedley Butler in the "banana wars" of Central America. As Major General Smedley Butler, he is known for his declaration in the 1930s, "I was a racketeer, a gangster for capital." Butler is hero to many of us, and especially members of Veterans for Peace. The stories tell, from the point of view of then-Captain Butler and of the Hondurans he is sent to repress, exactly what he did that caused him decades later to adopt that self-description. 

The closing story, "In the Midst Of The Valley," takes up one of the central themes of the book, race. White supremacy and the color line must lie at the heart of any honest look at the history of this country. Few works of fiction that I know of explore the complexities of this reality with depth of Levine's 30 page look at the question of indigenous nations, African descent, white privilege and political power through the experience of a man pursuing a dream of "a New Africa, a Black Zion."

To return to my digression at the start of this review: Go and read the damn book!

You can find it at Amazon.com in Kindle or dead treeversions. If you patronize Facebook, go and "Like" the "Stones From The Creek" page, and catch some snippets from these stories. 

[Full disclosure: While it would be stretching things to say that Rick Levine and I are friends, he is an acquaintance. And a really good and interesting writer.]

Read more!

January 15, 2014

The War On The Planet

[This talk was delivered two days ago, by my old friend Gary Goff. The Brooklyn Museum is featuring an exhibition called WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath. The Museum asked Brooklyn For Peace, a presence in the community for 30 years, to organize what they called a "Perspectives Talk." Gary, who is active in BFP's Climate Action working committee delivered--short and sharp!]

The War On The Planet

by Gary Goff


We usually think of violence as something that is abrupt and explosive --a bomb going off, a bullet finding its mark. The photos on exhibit here tend to reinforce this view.

But there is another kind of violence that is increasing worldwide, – the violence of climate change. Because it is incremental, it’'s mostly invisible, or at least not perceived as violence. But we need to reassess this view. Climate change is both violent and largely caused by human activity. It’'s as violent as war. People’'s homes and livelihoods are destroyed, their countries devastated, their lives taken. According to the UN there have been more than 4 million climate-related deaths since the 1970s.

As startling as that number is, the relationship between war and the environment is more than the high casualty rates they share. Environmental disasters cause wars and wars cause environmental disasters. Let me explain.

War destroys the environment – wrecking agriculture and infrastructure, killing and displacing millions of people, leaving a landscape of lethal chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactivity in its wake.

If we step back from the news items about war and environment that we see daily, we may be able to perceive a pattern here, a macabre cycle of cause and effect.
  • Our national dependence on fossil fuels makes us intervene in countries that are rich in fossil fuels
  • Which means we need a huge military
  • Which is so dependent on fossil fuels that we have to intervene in other countries to keep it supplied
Even when not engaged in war, the military causes environmental damage. The burning of fossil fuels--coal, oil, natural gas--causes climate change and the US military is the biggest single user of fossil fuels in the world.

And environmental disasters set the stage for war. Climate change is causing droughts, wildfires, floods, famines, and storms like we’ve never seen before. Rising sea levels threaten island dwellers around the world. Huge numbers of people are forced to leave their homes. The International Red Cross says there are now more environmental refugees than political refugees. In 2009,– the last year for which we have statistics,– 36 million people were driven from their homes by environmental destruction. You don’'t have to be a sociologist to understand that this many environmental refugees exacerbates the conditions that lead to war.

Increasingly wars are being fought for access to – and control of – resources like oil, gas, water, and arable land.

Today we’'ve heard about:
  • The war abroad –in Asia, the Mideast, and elsewhere
  • The war at home – attacks on communities of color, cutbacks in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure that Noam Chomsky calls "pure savagery"
  • And now, the war on the planet. Climate change is threatening the continued existence of human beings on this planet.
In Brooklyn For Peace, we say that you cannot stop any of these three wars unless you stop all of them. And we can only stop them if large numbers of people demand it and work for it. People like you.



Notes:

Climate-related deaths.
Climate Change and Health: Fact Sheet No 266, World Health Organization

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs266/en/

US military'’s use of fossil fuels.
Greenwashing the Pentagon, Joseph Nevins, Truthout, 13 June 2010

http://www.truth-out.org/archive/item/90115:greenwashing-the-pentagon

Environmental refugees.
Climate Refugee, National Geographic Educational

http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/encyclopedia/climate-refugee/?ar_a=1

Climate Refugees: The Human Toll of Global Warming, Teresita Perez, Center for American Progress, 7 December 2006

http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2006/12/07/2428/climate-refugees/

Climate Refugees in the 21st Century, Petra Durkova, Anna Gromilova, Barbara Kiss, Megi Plaku, Regional Academy on the United Nations, December 2012

http://acuns.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Climate-Refugees-1.pdf


 

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December 30, 2013

The Biggest Victory of 2013

As the year ends, the temptation to dust off the hands and say "Well, maybe 2014 will be better" is a strong one. But as we look ahead, it can't hurt to remind ourselves of some of the victories won in this country over the last twelve months.

There were victories won by the courageous efforts of individuals, like Edward Snowden who followed in the footsteps of Chelsea Manning and ripped the lid off the massive snake pit of government spying on US residents and peoples and leaders around the world.

There were local victories whose impacts created national ripples, notably the election of longtime fighter Chokwe Lumumba as mayor of Jackson MS. His victory in one of the old strongholds of Jim Crow racism gave heart to many in the Black liberation struggle.





Social Movements Pick Up Steam

Flourishing social movements at a national level have not yet won decisive victories, but their growing strength and impact alone signify celebration-worthy accomplishments:

  • The immigrants' rights struggle, spearheaded by young "dream warriors" has kept the issue to the fore and caused serious splits in the most reactionary wing of US bourgeois politics.
  • Low wage workers, with organizational help from unions like the UFCW and SEIU and from local workers center-type outfits, have set back Walmart, McDonalds and their ilk and created public opinion for a higher minimum wage.
  • The environmental movement has ramped up the struggle against fossil-fuel caused global warming. Both the national drive to block the Keystone XL pipeline and the locally-based anti-fracking struggles have drawn strength from closer links to First Nation activists like those in Idle No More.



  • Resistance to the "education reform" steamroller took a big leap, undermining the billionaire-funded drive to privatize and industrialize education and crush teacher unions.


The Big One
The biggest victory of 2013, though, is one that is too easily overlooked. For the first time, the people of the US stopped an imperialist war before it could start! The Obama administration and a substantial chunk of the ruling class were hellbent on an unjust and unjustifiable attack on Syria. Popular opposition stalled, then killed, their plan. 
To be sure, there were favorable circumstances. George W. Bush's catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq tainted any push toward further imperialist adventures in the Middle East. The people of the UK, whose rulers had walked in lockstep with ours on Iraq, forced Parliament to vote No on this one. Racist hatred for Obama by Congressional Republicans and their teahadist supporters back home dried up what would normally have been a deep pool of support.

Most importantly, the anti-war movement during the preceding decade had reminded the people of the US of the bitter lessons of the Vietnam War and drawn new ones from Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite a morale-sapping decline since the powerful days of 2003-7, anti-war forces rallied heroically in the crisis and provided the spearhead of resistance.



But what did the trick was ordinary everyday people. Polls showed that opposition to even the promised "limited attack" on the Assad regime ran as high as 80%. Local protests were backed up by a rapid outburst of rejection, with literally millions of calls, emails, petition signatures and letters to the editor bombarding the White House, politicians and the media. The message was simple: Don't Do This Thing!
And we won. There was no attack on Syria, no subsequent escalation, no new quagmire. The civil war in Syria grinds brutally on, fuelled by money, arms and combatants from outside the country, much of it from the US and close allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But who can doubt that direct US intervention would have made things worse for the people of Syria and the whole region?

On To 2014!



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December 23, 2013

Keep Your Christmas! It's Maosday For Me!


I don't celebrate Christmas. I suppose I could be said to observe it: since the early '80s, I don't think I've missed a December 25 family gathering, but thematically they have zero Christianity.

I don't celebrate Hanukkah, and I consider it a kind of fake-y holiday, puffed up over the last century, in the US especially, as an alternative Christmas (or Christmas Lite) to help Jewish parents keep their offspring from being tempted into the more commodified Christian camp.  

I don't celebrate the various attempts to revive solstice-based pagan festivals. True, the originals gave rise to all of the religious yearend observances, but since Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo we know the cycle of seasons is lawful and its recurrence doesn't require a lot of hoopla.

I don't celebrate Kwanzaa for a number of reasons. While I am of African descent (we all are—it's where humanity came from, after all), I am not part of the more recent African diaspora the holiday is intended for. And I'm not much on single day rituals myself; ones that last seven are definitely tl;do (too long; didn't observe). Mostly, though, I came up in the '60s and find it hard to warm up to any project of Ron Karenga's. I remember John Huggins and Bunchy Carter.

(Still, you have to give Karenga some credit. It's no small feat to make up a holiday celebrated by millions and observed by the US Postal Service with a fresh release of new Kwanzaa stamps every year.)

Yet I prefer not to be left out of the seasonal festivities entirely. And by great good fortune, it happens that Chairman Mao was born on December 26 (in 1893). Hence Maosday, a splendid holiday for proletarians of all nations. A celebration of revolutionary history and struggle.

We can simply emulate the Christian clerics who over the last two millennia appropriated all manner of practices from previous winter festivals—trees from Scandinavia, carols from the British Isles, feasting and partying from pretty much everywhere, like the Roman Saturnalia. &c.

In fact, the 26th is already, in Britain and many of its former colonies, a holiday with a slight working class flavor, Boxing Day. Its origins are appropriately secular. Since the aristocracy and the wealthy required, obviously, all their servants around them on Christmas Day, cooking, cleaning, butling and so on, the Downstairs folk were not permitted to be with their families until the next day. Then they would be sent home with boxes containing small gifts and perhaps some nice leftovers from the Christmas feast.

Come the revolution, the switchover should be fairly easy. Christmas becomes Maosday Eve, a lesser holiday which people can observe as they see fit, and most of the good shit happens on the 26th. The dichromatic red and green color scheme is broadened by the addition of black and/or yellow. And anyone playing "The Little Drummer Boy"--live or recorded--where other persons are forced to hear it without previously granting permission faces re-education.


Maosday!

I can't wait.

So I'm not. Yesterday I decorated my first ever official Maosday tree.

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